After more than a year of faltering starts, the Yes campaign has had a good week. Last Saturday, 1,100 left wing activists poured into the Marriot Hotel in central Glasgow for the second Radical Independence Conference (RIC).
Four days later, on the other side of the Clyde, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon launched their long-awaited White Paper on Independence, bringing some policy substance to RIC’s slightly unfocused, grassroots enthusiasm. The RIC crowd – a coalition of young socialists, greens and SNP social democrats – didn’t welcome everything in the White Paper. But they seem to have accepted it as an initial blueprint. The Yes campaign now has a clear point of focus for 2014.
And the White Paper is nothing if not clear. Over 10 chapters, 650 pages and 170,000 words, it explains the current and future shape of Scotland’s finances, the SNP’s defence, economic and welfare policies and Holyrood’s policy options after Scotland leaves the UK.
The headline pitch – to provide 1140 hours of free care to all Scottish three and four years olds by 2024 – was quickly and predictably dismissed by the SNP’s opponents as uncosted. But this overlooks the SNP’s broader economic argument, as laid out in pages 65 to 79. First of all, Scottish public expenditure is lower as a proportion of GDP than that of the UK as a whole, which means independence would grant Scotland greater fiscal room for manoeuvre. Secondly, independence would allow Holyrood to make savings, including by substantially cutting Scottish defence spending.
The third part of the SNP’s argument – that independence will generate a “growth dividend” – may be overly optimistic. But unionists have yet to explain why Scottish growth rates have so consistently lagged behind that of comparable European nations.
What the White Paper lacks in fresh policy announcements it makes up for in important, if subtle, shifts of emphasis. The SNP says Trident should be removed from Scottish waters within the lifetime of the first independent parliament. This represents a firming-up of its position not, as the Guardian suggested, a softening of it.
The Scottish government also wants to divide UK debt on the basis of Scotland’s “historical contribution” to the British Exchequer (“historical” meaning from 1980/81, the point at which North Sea oil revenues started rolling in) or according to population share. Previous references to Scotland taking a GDP share of British debt seem to have been abandoned
Perhaps the most significant feature of the White Paper launch was the weakness of the unionist response. Better Together had promised a “pretty big offensive”. Instead, it delivered a stream of platitudinous complaints, the most obviously false of which was that the document “lacked detail”.
These lines were scripted well in advance, which partly explains why they were so flat. Alistair Darling is running out of original ways to attack the SNP’s proposals. Sooner or later, of course, the Scottish electorate will to expect him to produce some proposals of his own.
There are, nonetheless, a number of troubling inconsistencies in the SNP’s vision. Page 91 of the White Paper states, “An independent Scotland will not replicate the economic structure of the UK”. Yet, on Tuesday, the first minister made the case for currency union on the grounds Scottish productivity and employment rates matched those of the UK. The White Paper also reaffirms the SNP’s commitment to a shared system of financial regulation, to “fiscal discipline” and to securing “credibility with the financial markets”, all of which are entirely in keeping with the Westminster consensus.
But none of this is new. The SNP is not a party of the old left, nor is it run by a cadre of tartan libertarians, as some commentators insist. Nationalist economic strategy is essentially Brownite. It assumes revenues generated by a dynamic free market should fund a generous welfare state. Hence the simultaneous pledges to cut corporation tax and deliver Swedish-style childcare provision.
The White Paper reflects the SNP’s ideological ambiguity. It is a solid but not inspiring prospectus for independence. In fact, the whole document is designed to highlight the governance-focused nature of modern Scottish nationalism – and largely succeeds in doing so.
The challenge now for supporters of independence is to marry the White Paper’s pragmatism with RIC’s sense of urgency. One without the other isn’t going to be enough, but together they present a formidable challenge to the unionists increasingly lacklustre and repetitive campaign.